Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


In 1962 the world was at war.  It was not a traditional war but one just as syphilitic.  Communism was spreading in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and many Americans were gripped by fear – some of it irrational.  Some of it…  It was in this environment that the novelist Richard Condon created THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  When film director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod adapted the book into a film, some felt its more extreme elements smacked of paranoia.  Left wing critics were appalled at the suggestion that the extreme left was as dangerous as the extreme right, and particularly offended by the notion that reactionary movements could be used by radical anti-American forces to take over the United States. 

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from the Korean war as a medal of honor recipient.  His mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) are caricatures of extreme right wing zealots – the Senator being clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy.  Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), a friend of Shaw’s and a member of his unit in Korea, is haunted by nightmares of their war experiences.  These dreams depict brainwashing sessions at the hands of the Chinese and Soviets.  The procedures are conducted in a garden party milieu attended by elderly American women and are observed by military personnel from the communist countries.  The brainwashing is conducted by the rotund Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) who frequently transforms into an older white woman.  He/she is, at first discussing horticulture.  Seated next to the speaker are Shaw and Marco as well as several other soldiers.  The speech grows menacing as Shaw is commanded to strangle a fellow soldier and shoot another.  Blood splatters on a picture of Joseph Stalin, Frankenheimer making his statement about the Soviet dictator’s bloody reign.  In this weird spectacle the Communists use a quintessentially American event (the garden party) to burrow into the mind of Shaw and the filmmakers equate the fragility of flowers with the delicate, sensitive human mind, which can be pulled apart petal by petal.  At the blast of the gun, Marco wakes up screaming. 

Soon other members of the squad are having the same dream, including an African American, Al Melvin (James Edwards).  America’s deficiency as a society are not glossed over by Frankenheimer and his team.  In Melvin’s version of the dream, all the woman are black, reflecting the country’s racial segregation of the time.  But there is a hopeful note: The Psychiatrist who helps Marco sort things out is a black man. 

The vices of capitalism and American consumerism are satirized right from the start of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, as we first meet members of Shaw’s unit as they carouse in a Korean brothel.  Prostitution is often used in Communist countries as an example of the supposed ugliness of pure capitalism.  The digs continue:  Shaw is taken (in a brainwashed state) to a secret Soviet facility in the U.S. that is housed in a rest home for wealthy alcoholics.  The connection between the rich and excess is inescapable.  Yen Lo himself makes several references to stateside advertising campaigns of the time:  “Tastes good like a cigarette should” he says with a sinister grin while offering a comrade a smoke.  And he remarks while leaving the scene, “I have an afternoon at Macy’s ahead of me.”  As Senator Iselin tries to decide on the exact number of communists in the Department of Defense, he comes upon “57” while pounding the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle!  Later at a costume ball held by “Mother”, a large American flag made of caviar, is greedily devoured by party goers.  Even American political idols take their licks:  Everywhere in Iselin’s home we see pictures and statues of Abraham Lincoln.  At the party Iselin is dressed as Lincoln.  There is a lamp made from a bust of “the great emancipator”, the shade doubling as an outsized stove pipe hat!  Could this be Frankenheimer’s statement about America’s own Soviet style “cult of personality”, and the overinfation of “Honest Abe’s” reputation? 

In a controversial twist Iselin and “Mother” are revealed to be Soviet spies involved in the brainwashing.  They order Shaw to assassinate the liberal Senator Jordan ( John McGiver), who stands in the way of their plans.  When he shoots Jordan, the Senator is holding a carton of milk which the bullet passes through.  Milk pulses out like a geyser of blood and this is indeed a wonderfully cheeky way for a milquetoast liberal to die.  There is an interesting aside concerning Jordan who has a inordinate dislike for snakes, a metaphor for his attitude toward the political establishment. 

There is also a fascinating treatment of the female characters in the film: The three are blond all American girl (or housewife) types.  Marco’s girlfriend “Rosie” (Janet Leigh) and Shaw’s new bride “Jocie” Jordan, (the Senator’s daughter –  Leslie Parrish) are given rhyming names.  Rosie (although she prefers “Jennie” for Eugenie Rose) is linked by name to the fragility of flowers referenced in the brainwashing scenes.  And “Mother” is as romantically inclined as Rosie and Jocie – in a kinky disturbing way: When she reveals the ultimate plan to her son, she closes her polemic by giving him a passionate, oedipal kiss on the lips!

In THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE the theme of memory and its importance in the lives of human beings is beautifully developed by Frankenheimer.  Particularly during flashbacks, the director utilizes very lengthy dissolves to express the lingering effects of broken relationships on the mind and spirit.  Along with the brainwashing scenes, these moments demonstrate John Frankenheimer’s ability to traverse the intracacies of the human mind.    

CREDITS: Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Produced by Howard W. Koch.  Written by George Axelrod.  Based on the novel by Richard Condon.  Photographed by Lionel Lindon.  Music by David Amram.  Edited by Ferris Webster.  With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh. 


March 19, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, John Frankenheimer, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment